A new assistant coach, a promising (but aching) newcomer and a blue-chipper headed to C-U for a visit have our beat writer's attention in his…
CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood and Stephen Gentry have a relationship that dates back long enough that Texas A&M was still in the Big 12. That’s when the two coaches met, with Underwood at Kansas State working for Bob Huggins and Frank Martin and Gentry in the early stage of his career with the Aggies.
Underwood and Gentry’s relationship also features some unique Kansas ties.
Underwood is from McPherson, Gentry from Fort Scott. Both their wives are from Salina, and Underwood’s wife, Susan, was a student-teacher for Gentry’s father-in-law, who also happened to coach one of Underwood’s biggest rivals when he was in high school.
It was Gentry’s time working with Underwood at Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State and even a month in 2017 at Illinois, though, that made the third-year Illini coach reach out when he shuffled his coaching staff last month. Gentry was the choice after Jamall Walker was moved off the court and recruiting trail and into a staff position as assistant to the head coach and defensive coordinator.
“He’s a tremendous basketball mind,” Underwood said about his newest — and also old — assistant. “You put that with the fact he knows what we do, and it made it a perfect fit and perfect opportunity. Gent’s hit the ground running simply because he knows our system and knows how we do things.”
Gentry’s two years away, however, have given him a fresh perspective on the offensive and defensive systems Underwood runs. He helped Gonzaga prepare for Illinois last season in the Maui Invitational, and he also brought back with him from Spokane, Wash., some Mark Few-inspired ideas.
Gentry has another viewpoint on how to run a practice and run a program. He also has a deepened appreciation for how Underwood does it. That includes how hard the Illini practice (organized skill workouts started Monday) and how hard they play (that near upset against Gonzaga last season in Maui).
“Brad’s biggest deal with me has always been, ‘Hey, push me. Give me new ideas,’” Gentry said. “That’s what I always liked working with him. I could put a fresh, new idea on his desk, he would read it and sometimes he would do it. Sometimes he wouldn’t, but he would always listen and be open to it.
“I’m kind of the ideas guy. What about this? What about that? Going back to Gonzaga gave me some new ideas to maybe incorporate here.”
Underwood appreciates that new perspective Gentry has brought to his coaching staff. What he sees, two years removed, is different from what Underwood or his other assistants, Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman, see having been immersed in building the Illini the past two seasons.
“He’s been able to give us a fresh set of eyes and see some things that maybe we’re doing exceptionally well or didn’t do as well at SFA or something maybe he’s learned at Gonzaga that can help in what we do,” Underwood said. “He’s given us a little breath of fresh air just in terms of a different set of eyes seeing us and helping us be able to clean some things up that we maybe had taken for granted a little bit. It’s been a really positive thing for us.”
Getting back on the court as an assistant coach and back on the road recruiting was the primary reason Gentry was interested in returning to Illinois to work with Underwood. He worked in a non-coaching role as director of basketball operations the past two seasons for Few at Gonzaga.
Gentry’s on-court coaching responsibilities start increasing now, with the Illini back into organized workouts. Those continue this week and next before Illinois jumps into full practices the first week of October. The recruiting piece is already underway, and Gentry was back on the road Monday.
“Right now Orlando and Chin have really got to do the yeoman’s work in this class early as Stephen wasn’t on the road,” Underwood said. “He’s getting his feet wet seeing all of our current recruits. He’ll really impact us down the road in future classes.”
Gentry’s primary recruiting base is Texas given his nearly decade spent in the state. He even helped develop a bit of a Texas-to-Gonzaga pipeline, with the Bulldogs signing three players from Texas — freshman Drew Timme and graduate transfers Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) and Ryan Woolridge (Noth Texas) — for the 2019-20 season.
“Drew, I wish we would have lost that one,” Gentry said. The four-star Richardson, Texas, native had Illinois as a finalist. “I wish he would have been here. I think my base is certainly Texas, but I’ve signed players from Kansas and Iowa and internationally. Brad’s deal is always, ‘Hey, go where the great players are. Recruit them if they’re the right fit and try to get them.’”